Yesterday's Magazette

6 – One County’s Greatest Generation


One County’s

Greatest Generation

By Madonna Dries Christensen

Osceola County, Iowa, occupies only 397 square miles in the Northwest corner of the state. Like towns and cities across the country, this agricultural community sent its youngsters to fight a war in lands they never expected to see. Barely more than children, they turned off the tractor or rose from their school desks and headed for the enlistment office. As green as field corn, they joined friends who’d been stocking shelves at the grocery, pumping gas at the filling station, working as secretaries, or plugging a probe into a receptacle and saying, “Number, please?” at the telephone office.

Some had a year or two of college under their belt; others handed over their law or medical practice to caretakers and signed on for an unknown duration. An earlier generation of men who once believed they’d fought the war to end all wars squared their shoulders and held back tears as they put sons and daughters aboard trains and waved them out of sight.

As the war accelerated, Mrs. George Rehms began clipping from the weekly paper any news related to these young people. She and her husband had two sons in the service. Later put in a scrapbook, the clippings range in size from two inch items about a serviceman home on furlough to a long account from a soldier who spent three terrible years in a prison camp in Manchuria after being captured at Bataan. Reverend Leo Berger’s eloquent eulogy at President Roosevelt’s memorial service joined reports of Bronze Stars, Silver Stars, Purple Hearts, and too many headlines reading: Killed In Action.

The letter-writers rarely complained and often advised Mom not to worry. The most requested items were letters, cigarettes, candy, and socks. Bursting with what might have been false bravado, J.E. wrote: “Sometimes I have to get down in the foxhole as the Germans try and lob a few artillery shells. We’ve got about all the snipers cleaned out of this area now. The boys don’t have much love for snipers. When we locate their position they come out with their hands in the air yelling “comrad.” Well, they don’t want to come yelling comrad at me. A person can’t take any chance with them. I don’t believe in taking prisoners.”

Later wounded at Normandy, J.E. received a Purple Heart.

Seaman J.D. wrote to his wife: “I see by Mom’s letter that you were worried by the Jap’s claim of singeing some of our transports and that you went to church and prayed. It’s a good thing someone else prayed because I hope to tell you I prayed. I saw a couple of them go down myself. When we left San Francisco we went to Pearl Harbor and from there to Eneivetok, thence to Vliihi in the Carolina Islands and as we passed Yap and Truk we had some Jap planes come over. We got a few of them and the rest of the yellow birds turned tail and ran. We also had a sub attack but our escort destroyers took care of him in a hurry. From Vliihi we went to Okinawa where our outfit got it. The Jap suicide planes are the real thing, as I saw it happen. We brought Marines back from Iwo Jima and also 300 Jap prisoners which we left at Guam. I got some Jap money, will send it later.”

During one period, 13 members of the medical unit of the Iowa National Guard were missing in action in North Africa. They were later found in German and Italian prison camps. Letters from the prisoners kept townsfolk covertly updated on their whereabouts, condition and, finally, their release.

Photos tell their own stories: A woman seated next to pictures of her seven sons in uniform. J.C. Penney’s two display windows packed with pictures of men in uniform. A smiling, youthful airman beside a headline announcing he’d been killed in England. On the day word reached his parents, they received a letter from him saying that he was okay and that Christmas packages were coming through.

Among the scrapbook’s last entries near the end of the war is this letter:

Dear Mrs. Rehms:

Recently your son, Technical Sergeant Elmer L. Rehms, was decorated with the Air Medal. It was an award in recognition of courageous service to his combat organization, his fellow American airmen, his country, his home, and you. He was cited for meritorious achievement while participating in aerial flights in the Pacific from December 10, 1944 to April 2, 1945. Your son took part in sustained operational flight missions during which hostile contact was probable and expected. These flights aided considerably in the recent successes in the theatre.

Almost every hour of every day your son, and the sons of other American mothers, are doing just such things as that here in the Pacific. Theirs is a real and tangible contribution to victory and to peace. I would like to tell you how genuinely proud I am to have men such as your son in my command, and how gratified I am to know that young Americans with such courage and resourcefulness are fighting our country’s battles against the Japanese aggressors.

You, Mrs. Rehms, have every reason to share that pride and gratification.

Sincerely, George C. Kennedy, General, United States Army, Commanding.

Veteran George Braaksma returned home and began farming; he and his wife raised nine children. In 1983, he bought Rehms’s two to three thousand clippings at her household auction and painstakingly glued the pieces chronologically into a scrapbook. He offered to let people stop by his house to see the collection. Interest ran high, and the local printing company produced a short run of copies. They sold out, as did a second printing. This limited edition book is unpretentious; reproduced the way Braaksma created it, 140 pages, spiral bound and about the size of a U. S. road atlas; its content, however, circles the globe.

“Newspaper Clippings of Osceola County WW II Veterans” could be the most thorough record of one county’s participation in any war. Knock on any door across America during World War II and you’d find someone touched by the battles raging across Africa, Europe, and Asia. But it’s unlikely that another collection like Mrs. Rehms’s would be found.

[Author’s note: The letters used in this article were written long before political correctness became a part of our language. Altering the text to conform to today’s standards would tamper with their authenticity. I have donated a copy of this scrapbook to the library at the World War II Museum in New Orleans.]



  1. I can imagine a small town with so many boys at war hanging on every word in these articles. What a thoughtful man to put it all together. Great article.

    Nadja Bernitt

    Comment by Nadja Bernitt — February 9, 2008 @ 9:02 am | Reply

  2. Thanks for sharing this unusual memorabilia. I found the organization of your material well-suited to the nature of the article.

    Comment by McClaren Malcolm — February 24, 2008 @ 3:31 pm | Reply

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